Musings on Bond at 50: Licence To Kill

Posted: 8 October 2012 in entertainment, film
Tags: , , , ,

His bad side is a dangerous place to be as 007’s Licence To Kill is revoked in the most controversial James Bond film ever.

Effective immediately, your licence to kill is revoked.

Licence To KillThe only entry in the series to receive a 15 certificate from the British Board of Film Classification due to violent content, 1989’s Licence To Kill is unlike any other Bond film before or since. A dark and brooding revenge thriller it stunned and confused audiences accustomed to fantastical sets, whimsical one-liners, and elaborate stunts. Just two films after the departure of Roger Moore and his light-hearted adventures audiences were confronted with a moody world-weary Byronic 007 whose rebellious desire for justice resulted in a conflict with MI6 itself. Opinion amongst fans and critics as to the merits of the film remains polarised like no other Bond film.

Unimaginative detractors perceive it as a big budget feature-length helping of Miami Vice with Dalton’s bland performance contributing to a film that nearly killed the franchise. Fans of the literary character, and the more intelligent cadre of cinema goers, justly view Licence To Kill as one of the premier entries with Timothy Dalton excelling as the truest manifestation of Ian Fleming’s James Bond 007 ever witnessed on film.

Cubby Broccoli and his creative team should be applauded for taking chances with the franchise in Licence To Kill. Five-time Bond director John Glen considers Licence To Kill to be the best production he helmed and correctly advocates Timothy Dalton to be the best actor to have performed in the role up to that point in time. Rather than resting upon their laurels they utilised Dalton’s exceptional talents and tailored one of the very best scripts of the series specifically to his darker and brooding portrayal of the legendary British agent.

Granted the film is a shock to anyone raised on the likes of Moonraker. In place of double-taking pigeons, a giant with steel teeth and laser battles in outer space comes graphic violence with exploding heads, people set alight, and a James Bond who is fallible and gets the crap kicked out of him physically and emotionally by journey’s end.

For his sixteenth outing Bond was initially heading to China. Richard Maibum and Michael G Wilson, in their fifth and final collaboration, constructed an outline that placed 007 in conflict with a Golden Triangle drug baron and incorporated a motorcycle chase along the Great Wall of China and a fight amongst a collection of Terracotta Warriors. The writers were forced into a change of direction when negotiations with the Chinese government proved to be insurmountable. Instead they devised a storyline that would see 007 going renegade from the British Secret Service in order to gain vengeance upon Latin American drug lord Franz Sanchez.

For the element of 007 infiltrating the villain’s organisation, and sowing the seeds of destruction from within by fostering mistrust, Wilson took inspiration from the classic Japanese film Yojimbo (later remade as A Fistful of Dollars and Last Man Standing). The death of Leiter’s bride of mere hours evoked memories of Bond’s own ill-fated marriage in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and from the novel Live And Let Die the writers incorporated the horrific maiming of Felix Leiter by sharks as the motivation for Bond to go rogue. In many respects Licence To Kill is the revenge thriller that the cinematic You Only Live Twice should have been.

Loyalty is more important to me than money.

Licence To Kill - SanchezInspired by the notorious General Manuel Noriega, Franz Sanchez is the most physically threatening chief antagonist that 007 has ever confronted and ranks in the top three villains of the series alongside Auric Goldfinger and Sir Hugo Drax. Robert Davi immediately grasped that Sanchez, with his ability to be charming and ruthless in equal measure, is Bond’s “mirror image”. Arrogantly believing himself capable of buying anyone’s loyalty, and in supreme control of Isthmus City, Sanchez views himself as untouchable.

Ian Fleming always viewed Bond as being St George in conflict with the dragon, battling the villains who considered themselves beyond justice. In this instance Bond manipulates the dragon into turning his wrath upon himself and reducing his own empire to ashes. With both actors possessing fierce physical presences Dalton and Davi render the confrontations between the hero and the villain the most brutal in the entire history of the series. Never before has 007 looked so bloodied and battered by film’s end.

From the moment 007 turns Sanchez’s refining facility into an inferno to the moment the drug lord is set alight by 007 the action barely pauses for breath. The climatic chase where Bond infiltrates Sanchez’s convoy of cocaine-laden fuel tankers and systematically destroys them is an incredible feat of unequalled sustained action. Overseen by Barbara Broccoli and coordinated by legendary driving stunts arranger Remy Julienne, the sequence utilised sixteen 18-wheeler Kenworth tankers and was filmed at the La Rumorosa Mountain Pass in Mexicali, along a stretch of highway that had been closed due to the high number of fatal accidents that had occurred there.

Due to rising costs and the abolition of tax breaks filming of Licence To Kill was based at Estudios Churubusco in Mexico City between July and November 1988 with no filming occurring in the UK for the first time in the franchise’s history. The tropical settings of Mexico served to double for the fictional Republic of Isthmus and filming was also carried out in the Florida Keys. One of the downsides of the total relocation of the production was the homesickness of the British crew, including Timothy Dalton. More serious was the need for Cubby Broccoli to return to his home in America after experiencing serious breathing problems in the polluted atmosphere of Mexico City. The veteran producer would not set foot on the set of a Bond production again.

Oh, don’t be an idiot, 007. I know exactly what you’re up to, and quite frankly, you’re going to need my help. Remember, if it hadn’t been for Q Branch, you’d have been dead long ago.

Licence To Kill - Bond and PamThe spectre of the weak American Bond girls of Diamonds Are Forever, Moonraker and A View To A Kill is expunged with the appearance of the best leading lady of the 1980s: Carey Lowell as Pam Bouvier. A former Army pilot and informant for Leiter she is not prepared to take any crap from Bond and is perfectly willing to call him out for the mess he makes of proceedings by cocking up her attempts to retrieve misappropriated Stinger missiles on behalf of the US government. Pam also forms a close connection with her “uncle” when Q arrives to help out the renegade 007.

Recognising the need for some lighter moments within the seriousness of Bond’s quest the writers decided to have Q go on “leave” and join Bond in Isthmus City on his unauthorised mission. Desmond Llewelyn grasps his greatest ever amount of screen time with both hands and very nearly steals the film from underneath Dalton and Davi with a delightfully whimsical performance that demonstrates the friendship and loyalty that the Quartermaster feels for 007, despite the agent’s tendency to destroy all his hard work in the blink of an eye. The biggest laugh-out loud moment comes with Q throwing away one of his own gadgets in the shape of a radio transmitter concealed within a broom.

Anticipation for the reception of the new rougher James Bond was high at EON Productions and a palpable sense of disappointment was experienced at the critical and financial mauling it subsequently received. Critics didn’t warm to Dalton’s performance and MGM wasn’t pleased with the box office returns. $156 million against a $32 million budget can’t be considered a box office failure by any means but the studio felt cause for concern as it was the lowest-grossing Bond film ever in the all-important American market. However there were a number of contributing factors associated with the outside world’s perception that Licence To Kill had been a complete financial failure.

The faltering of the film in terms of box office success in comparison to other films in the series was not due to storytelling but in behind the scenes issues and release scheduling. During pre-production and principal photography the film was entitled Licence Revoked in acknowledgement of Bond’s 00 status being withdrawn by M. The decision to change to Licence To Kill was taken after surveys revealed that a vast percentage of Americans were unaware of the meaning “revoked”. This eleventh hour decision caused the scrapping of Broccoli’s original prestigious Licence Revoked publicity material emphasising the darker nature of the new film. The MGM-authorised replacements were the blandest ever issued for a Bond film and greeted with derision. More importantly the film became lost in the huge box office battle of summer 1989. Also released at that time were Lethal Weapon 2, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, and Tim Burton’s Batman. Cinema goers were only able to spend a finite amount of money and for once 007 lost out. Tellingly all subsequent Bonds have been released in the autumn.

Don’t you want to know why?

Licence To Kill - Bond and SanchezOne of the myths of the James Bond film series is the false perception that the fall out from Licence To Kill was the reason for the series subsequently heading into an unplanned six year hiatus. Despite the underperformance of Licence To Kill Broccoli immediately commenced pre-production on Dalton’s third outing as 007 The Property of a Lady and planned to begin filming in early 1991 for a release in the autumn of that year. By May 1990 a detailed outline for the film existed and location filming in Hong Kong, and possibly Canada, was in the planning stages. With a plot orientated around terrorists wanting to stage a nuclear meltdown and industrialists who want to keep Hong Kong a capitalist stronghold, The Property of a Lady would have featured hi-tech scientific concepts grounded within the realistic universe established by Licence To Kill.

What scuppered proceedings was a series of complicated legal issues connected to the global broadcast rights of the Bond films. In 1989 MGM/UA was purchased by Qintex, an Australian broadcasting group, which wanted to merge the company with Pathé, who intended to broadcast the canon in several countries without the approval of Danjaq, the Swiss parent company of EON Productions. As a result Broccoli sued MGM/UA in order to protect the rights of the series he had worked on since 1962.

Timothy Dalton’s contribution to the legacy of James Bond has been derided and underrated for far too long. Without his dedication and determination to invoke the return of the more serious and darker aspects of the character missing for so long it is debatable whether the series would have reached its 30th anniversary, let alone the 40th and 50th. Ultimately the promise displayed at the close of Licence To Kill “James Bond will return” would take longer than expected to fulfill and in so many ways it is disappointing that the Bond of the 1990s was not Timothy Dalton.

1 From Russia With Love
2 Goldfinger
3 Licence To Kill
4 On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
5 The Living Daylights
6 The Spy Who Loved Me
7 Thunderball
8 Dr. No
9 For Your Eyes Only
10 You Only Live Twice
11 Octopussy
12 Moonraker
13 Diamonds Are Forever
14 A View To A Kill
15 Live And Let Die
16 The Man with the Golden Gun

Licence To Kill teaser

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